In celebration and mindfulness of it being Tourism Week, I thought I’d bring in some thoughts around tourism and where it’s been, is and where it’s going? It is obvious that the pandemic has impacted tourism in Alberta, across the country and the planet. Globally it is a significant economic sector, and some would debate in the top three. When the world began shutting down in early March in Canada, the industry was one of the first immediately impacted.
Tourism is experienced and focused directly around the movement of people, and that slowed significantly at the time. As we all forced to stop moving, it would probably have been one of the top five thoughts we panicked about after our immediate concern of work, family, health, friends and future was the limitation of movement for business and leisure. The sobering thought is that limitation of movement crosses across the rest of those other aspects of our lives we value. Business and leisure travel is a significant challenge to our global ‘cabin fever’ feelings.
One of the aspects of tourism development over the last decade I have noticed though in economic development conversations and within the industry development realms that the focus has shifted to marketing tourism and less developing the sector like any other economic sector. Perhaps the advent of social media and intense marketing of stories and experience branding, strategic planning has focused on the concepts of experience awareness and promotion and less on developing and promoting new operators and value-chain development. Tourism has been left to its organic growth, I believe, for the last decade or so. Some areas could be useful case studies of fundamental economic development influence in tourism development, such as communities like Revelstoke or the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region in BC. Areas like these have seen explosive operator growth. In an area like Cariboo Chilcotin Coast, the development of new product even occurred in back to back devastating forest fire seasons where fires happened in peak tourism season. Much of that growth has also been around indigenous operations coming into the product growth story.
Pre-pandemic the challenge for operators, especially in rural Alberta, is getting visitation to a tourism operator. Their product and experience may be amazing, but the challenge is they, in many cases, are the only show in town. Itinerary development is usually challenging to link to other experiences, accommodations and culinary due to proximity of the linked business to build a destination. Just like any other sectors where economic development has supported and focused on supply chain supports for industry to thrive or making investment attraction efforts to support industry looking to land in a region. Value-chain analysis of qualified labour, housing, and other aspects of quality of life, which are the standards of the economic development toolkit, the tourism sector has been left to story-telling and brand in many areas or communities, which is simply marketing. There has been efforts to try to launch initiatives in culinary and agri-tourism rurally, but the challenges are to build comprehensive itineraries especially in rural Alberta and in shoulder and winter seasons.
I have had a few conversations about recreational infrastructure over the last few years for example. It usually starts with discussions of ice arenas. There is often never enough ice sheets to handle community demands of ice and time on it, and that’s where the debate starts. I see a facility with one sheet of ice and long wooden bench step seating with the community parents with their concession coffees huddled together watching their children out on the ice for practice, game or tournament. The debate starts from there by someone saying we need another sheet of ice to meet demand so we aren’t doing 5 am sessions at the arena in the dead of winter. I see it in another way. What if before the doubling of ice area that maybe more seating to attract larger tournaments, events or concerts for the other six months the building isn’t being used for anything else to generate revenue to keep the current facility viable. Maybe get the building making money before expanding the ice area. If the building could have additional seating and attract more significant events year-round, the hotels would be busier or expanding, retail would rise throughout the community, and new business may also be attracted to the community. New growth also aids in paying for the future expansion of ice surfaces. This story is just an example, but I notice there’s less debate discussing other economic sectors because other sectors are more engrained into the economic vitality of a community they may be valued in historically as a large employer and the value-chain linked to it.
It is tourism development that changes the conversation. Intertwined in the strategy question of what industry could aid in growing our community that is desiring growth and diversification of its economy. The economic sector dartboard has oil&gas, green, agriculture and any flavour of the month sector. If tourism is indeed one of the most active sectors globally and continually grows as the world gets more mobile economic development focus may make sense. Tourism has had solid growth globally, and as the Third World and the Pacific Rim get out exploring the world, it has really ramped. If the pandemic has shown anything more apparent is that the world is mobile and appreciates mobility. It is a solid growth sector, and as the pandemic fades and fear subsides, tourism will be back with a vengeance.
Tourism requires no mineral or agricultural wealth in the community’s immediate area; it seems almost as maybe one of the most economically sound sectors to target. Tourism isn’t controlled by foreign nations or organizations for pricing controls like energy, or other commodities. Your community’s tourism sector could be stable for decades with care and attention and integration into your community activities and economic development strategies as a sector and not just marketing.
Maybe we need to diversify our thoughts on how we look at tourism in economic development beyond using it as a storytell for visitation and quality of life marketing for other sector development. Let’s add tourism into our sector development focus and help our operators by infilling the value-chain of tourism and build itineraries for visitors and new investment attraction.
Something to consider is to look at your hotels and why they were built in your community. Chances are they weren’t primarily built for tourism, but most likely another sector. What seems to be tourism infrastructure is not connected to tourism, and it’s at risk just like the sector it may have been built for unless there is an economic development focus shift.
The pandemic has given all of the time to reflect and strategize. During Tourism Week 2020, maybe it is time to pivot how we also look at how we have treated tourism and bring it back into true economic development focus along with it’s other sector focuses. It is the one sector we can already see coming back as we phase to reopening.
Stay safe everyone and stay local and visit your experience the local tourism operators and support businesses, which is every other business.